Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
April, 2004
Regional Report

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Give dianthus a spot by a walkway and they'll perfume your strolls.

Divine Dianthus

Sweet William, cheddar pinks, maiden pinks ... dianthus have such appealing names -- not to mention the alluring fragrance of some types -- that many gardeners can't resist them.

While florist's carnations may be the most well known of the genus, there are more than 300 species and too many hybrids and varieties to count. Most have blue-green or silvery green foliage, and flower petals with notched or feathery edges. And all thrive best with excellent drainage. But there is much to differentiate the many kinds of dianthus, and there are annual, biennial, and perennial types. A little background will help you choose the best ones for your garden.

Perennial Dianthus
You'd think that "pinks" got their name from the flower color, but actually the common name refers to the jagged or "pinked" edges of the petals. (Pinking shears are scissors used to cut a notched edge on fabric that prevents it from fraying.) Pinks are some of the hardiest dianthus, with most thriving to USDA hardiness zone 3, provided they are in well-drained soil.

Cheddar pinks. These pinks (D. gratianoplitanus) -- named not for the cheese but for their native habitat, the Cheddar Gorge in England -- sport fragrant flowers atop 6-inch stems. They'll founder in soggy soil, but will thrive between the rocks in a stone wall where water drains freely.

Maiden pinks. D. deltoides form loose mats of rapidly spreading ground cover, with flowers appearing from late spring to midsummer.

Sand pinks. Dianthus arenarius bloom with deeply fringed, fragrant, white flowers atop dark green, grass-like foliage. True to their common name, this plant prefers sandy soil.

Carnations. Even though they are perennial, carnations in general are not as reliably hardy as the pinks. Some carnations are rated hardy to zone 4, others to zone 7. (Less hardy types can be grown as annuals.) Perfect for bouquets and a favorite in cottage gardens, carnations usually need staking to keep the 3-foot stems upright.

Biennial Dianthus
Sweet william. You would think that William, Duke of Cumberland, for whom this flower is probably named, must have been a sweet man, but most accounts describe him as ruthless and cruel in his battles with the Scots in the mid 1700s. (While the English refer to the man and the flower as Sweet William, both are referred to as "Stinking Billy" in Scotland.) By either name, the flowers of sweet william (Dianthus barbatus) are lovely, borne in profusion atop mounding foliage.

Whether you consider their fragrance sweet or stinking is a matter of personal taste. Flowers are borne in clusters that entirely cover the plant in early summer. Individual flowers may be white, pink, red, or multicolored. Although the plants are biennial, sweet william readily self-sows.

Annual Dianthus
China Pinks. Colorful and easy to grow, China pinks (Dianthus chinensis) are perennial in some parts of the country but are best treated as annuals in the Northeast. Varieties range in height from 8 to 28 inches, so choose carefully if you are looking for cut flowers. Unfortunately, china pinks aren't nearly as fragrant as their perennial cousins. 'Corona Cherry Magic' was a 2003 All America Selection, with 3-inch, multicolored flowers in shades of pink, fuchsia, and red. The Parfait series dianthus have smaller (2-inch) pastel flowers with dark centers.

Growing Dianthus
In general, dianthus prefer full sun and very well-drained soil that has a neutral or slightly alkaline pH. The biggest problem is crown rot, so avoid burying the crown when planting and take care not to overwater the plants. If you mulch your flowerbeds, keep the mulch several inches back from your dianthus to improve air circulation around the stems and crowns. Shear back mounding varieties after flowering to encourage a second bloom. To encourage self-sowing, avoid cutting back flowers that form in late summer until the seeds have matured and dropped.

"Dianthus" is derived from the Greek, meaning "divine flower." Once you've become acquainted with these garden gems, you'll agree the name was aptly chosen.

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